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Wed04162014

Opinion

Can African-American women do better than Hillary

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charles ellison-250

It might be appropriate to preface this with the fact that I'm a dude injecting myself into what boils down to a woman's decision at the polls. But it's still a peculiar and necessary question that we should keep asking from now through 2016: Why should African-American women support Hillary Clinton for president?

The answer probably depends on how the question is viewed. Some sisters might actually consider it pointless, given the power of the former secretary of state's political brand – and given that many still see her as Bill's wife. Recall that in 2007 – even after that young, less-grayed, charismatic black Illinois senator took to a Springfield stage – Hillary was their "girl." An October 2007 poll showed her easily surpassing Obama with 68 percent support from black female voters.

Who in their right black mind would believe that a brother with a name as bizarre and non-Anglicized as "Barack Obama" had even the fringe of a national poll's chance to win? Ferocious internal debates with family members ensued. It wasn't until that fateful, history-twisting Iowa caucus that black folks suddenly stopped viewing Obama as merely Dennis Haysbert's stunt double in 24.

Eight years of President George W. Bush left a yearning for the return of the Clintons. Many African Americans – women especially – swam in the nostalgia like partygoers in The Great Gatsby's private pool, eager to resurrect a sort of emotional reconnection with someone frequently referred to (in both jest and comfort) as the "first black president."

That same conversation re-emerges nearly a decade later. Many would probably take offense to the question because Clinton is seen as the only candidate worthy of any black political support come the next round. One of the more recent Economist-YouGuv polls found that 70 percent of African Americans view Clinton favorably in comparison with six other names. She was only 11 points behind Obama's 81 percent.

It's interesting to note that Vice President Joe Biden came in third at 65 percent. Only 41 percent of whites viewed Clinton favorably (and only 36 percent approved of Obama). Strangely enough (considering the narrative), only 49 percent of women overall favored Clinton – compared with 46 percent for Obama.

What helps drive those African-American numbers for Clinton into the political stratosphere is more obvious, and ongoing, loyalty to the Democratic Party. But it's mainly black women – who were 69 percent of the black electorate in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012 – who account for that.

November 2016 might be a few years off, but the Hillary storyline is locked. Clintonians, eager for the political-dynasty throwback, have all but ushered in a sense of history part 2 taking place: We got the first black president, so it's only a pro forma constitutional matter to get the first woman president. But if that's the case, the rest of us are gearing up for one of the most boring presidential elections ever.

Granted, Democrats should end up with a strong margin of White House winning streaks – long past 2016 – as Republicans fail to adapt to demographic realities. But that will hinge rather significantly on Democrats' ability to produce a candidate as brand name tested as Apple, which has now outdone Coke.

The puzzler in the Dems' political calculus for 2016 is what to do once Obama leaves the ticket. Strategists and activists alike worry that once the first African-American family vacates 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, black voters will essentially stop paying attention in big numbers – that vested feeling abruptly done.

Little surprise, then, that Clinton is pushed as the front-runner, despite an evolving phalanx of other capable candidates – including the current vice president – going about the business of building campaigns. Even if political superstar Mayor Cory Booker of Newark N.J., or the less-known, but extremely capable, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick were to run in 2016, Clinton might still get a much more solid nod from black female voters.

Womanhood, of course, plays a significant role in this political dynamic – but that factor is much more complex, given the differences in perspective and experience between black and white women. Their struggles are worlds apart, despite the usual tendency to prioritize women's issues according to the whims of white women. High-profile white women (such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg) frequently either dismiss or simply forget to note women of color in their commentary.

In the case of Clinton, absent her predictable appearances before national groups representing women of color, the jury might still be out on what is truly persuasive about her in that context. She makes powerful and essential statements about female empowerment – but they are mostly general in scope. On the other hand, the lesser-known but politically rising freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) constantly strikes a chord on myriad issues much more critical to the social and economic realities of black people, including income inequality, unemployment, college tuition and foreclosures.

Although we have yet to hear a Clinton doctrine aggressively addressing those areas, we might be once again limiting ourselves to the glare of celebrity and inevitability at the expense of some important items on the policy checklist. And if the goal is, ultimately, a woman in the White House, then what about considering a Warren or a fairly qualified bench of other female candidates?

Beyond polling numbers and expectations from many African-American politicians (particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus) who had a much stronger relationship with the Bill Clinton White House than with Obama's, why should black women support Hillary Clinton? It's not as if first lady Michelle Obama is hanging out with her as much as she is, say, Jill Biden.

Currently, there is quite a bit of premature quiet high-fiving among sisters on the subject of Hillary Clinton, despite the lack of anything racially, spiritually or emotionally discernible that really connects them to her – with the exception of femininity. But with the world a much more complicated geopolitical and economic space now than it was in Bill Clinton's '90s, is that enough?

(Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. When he's not mad, he can be reached via Twitter.)

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